Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) stands with South Africa's President Jacob Zuma at the Union Building in Pretoria November 26, 2014..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday, South Africa celebrated the 21st Freedom Day, which commemorates the country’s first post-apartheid election, when non-whites received full voting rights.
The celebrations at the South African embassies in Tel Aviv and Ramallah were marred, however, by Israel’s decision to prevent Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister for higher education and training, from entering either Israel or areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
In a speech on Tuesday in Ramallah, Mlungisi W. Makalima, South Africa’s representative to the PA, criticized Israel’s decision to block Nzimande’s from attending the inauguration of special relations between Bir Zeit University and Johannesburg University.
The move, he said, “has done nothing to dampen the determination to reap the benefits of this agreement” between the universities.
South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane, who is based in Tel Aviv, said his country’s representatives were “disappointed” by Israel’s decision.
Some leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community also criticized the move. Both the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation called the diplomatic flap “regrettable,” arguing that “regular interaction between Israel and South Africa and mutual visits of political leaders, parliamentarians and government officials, as well as business people, media, tourists and family visits, are to the benefit of both South Africa and Israel and foster greater understanding between the two countries.”
While we agree in principal with these Jewish leaders and with the South African diplomats, it is important to note that there is a wider context to Israel’s decision.
“In many respects I felt that Israeli apartheid is worse than South African apartheid,” Nzimande said last August during a speech at the University of Johannesburg, according to the Daily Maverick. Nzimande, who was recalling a trip he had made to Israel a decade before, said that Israel’s ambassador to South Africa should be expelled and that South Africa’s ambassador to Israel should be recalled. He made the comments at a time when the IDF was in the Gaza Strip, locating and destroying terrorist tunnels and rocket launchers used by Hamas to attack Israeli civilians.
Nzimande supported the decision in 2011 by the University of Johannesburg to end academic cooperation with Ben-Gurion University. The cooperation, which began in August 2009, focused on helping South Africa improve its water purification and micro-algal biotechnology research.
Nzimande, who is the South African Communist Party’s general secretary, has said in the past that his party would boycott Woolworths for carrying Israeli products.
Still, we have argued in the past – for instance in 2010 when Noam Chomsky was denied entry to deliver a speech at Bir Zeit University – that even the most caustic critics of Israel should be allowed into Israel.
Part of the reason is that it makes good sense. Nzimande would have received just a fraction of the media attention he enjoyed if Israel would have simply allowed him to visit Bir Zeit University, attend Freedom Day celebrations at the Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah and visit other locations in the West Bank.Also, by banning Nzimande, Israel gives the impression it is being spiteful or petty or has something to hide.
Instead, it should show both Palestinians and South Africans its willingness to be open to even the most reprehensible opinions, such as Nzimande’s position that the situation in the West Bank is “worse than South African apartheid.”
In the end it is not Nzimande but rather the South African government that determines the country’s policies vis-à-vis Israel. And as long as there are full diplomatic relations between the countries, ministers should be permitted into areas under Israeli control.
South Africa has much to gain from cooperation with Israel. As the country enters its third decade since making the transition from apartheid to democracy, South Africa faces many challenges, from overcoming grinding poverty to increasing literacy, from improving health standards to developing natural and human resources.
It would a shame if a distorted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led South Africans to further weaken fruitful cooperation with Israel, a country that has much.